Follow the Bear

Bad beers can lead to good times.  Jumping straight to the ‘best’ of anything deprives you of so much fun along the way.  If your first car was an Aston Martin, then you would never experience the joy of climbing into a Vauxhall Nova on a cold December morning and trying to start it using a manual choke, nor would you have felt the fear of looking down into the foot well of your Daihatsu Charade and seeing daylight.  These are not moments you would choose for your Ground Hog day, but looking back on them gives you so much more than a moment of luxury ever could.  In Stuart Howe’s keynote speech, at ‘that conference’ nobody wants to hear much more about, he referenced his time brewing Hofmeister Lager-Bier.  I tried to listen to the next passage of his talk, but the word Hofmeister threw a forgotten switch in my brain which released memories of a summer in 1994.

A mustard coloured Austin Ambassador pulled into the campsite, shoehorned inside were five teenagers, a family sized tent, rucksacks filled to bursting point and very little food.  We were all 16 and my mate’s dad knew we were in for a fun few days.  He gave a wry smile when he lifted the baggage from the boot.  Both the weight and the distinct four-pack shapes protruding from these bags could not hide their bounty.  It was like a scene from the Wonder Years where Kevin and his dad share a moment, a rite of passage where no words are exchanged but everything has been said.  As the car drove away we knew we had plenty of time to pitch the tent, so we flopped onto our bags, cracked cans of warm Hofmeister and talked crap about football and girlfriends.  Even after several cans of non-premium lager we did have somewhere to sleep on that first night, but the shape of the tent did not match that of the picture on the instructions.  None of us gave a shit, but one of us did vomit into someone else’s Hi-Tech 4×4 trainers.

We played cricket in the sun until we couldn’t move for sunburn, we talked and we laughed and when we ran out of things to say the conversation was quickly jolted back to life with a reference to Hawes, the comedy name of the town we were staying in.  After two nights we had the campsite to ourselves, no coincidence, and were running low on beer.  My mate Dom looked the oldest as he had the darkest hair, making his top lip the most convincing.  A quick trip to the Spar shop and we were laughing again, no more of the good stuff in a yellow can, but plenty of Ruddles, Trophy and Old Speckled Hen, which did none of us any favours.  Before calling home for help and an immediate airlift, we visited the Hawes Rope Maker, he wasn’t there, but we left him the can of Hofmeister we had saved for emergencies.

Back in the room at the Met Hotel, Stuart Howe wrapped up his talk and we all clapped.  Apologies to Stuart and thank you Hofmeister.

Learning Point 3 – Beer is the Sum of Six Parts

Beer has five six key ingredients, not four as some would have you believe: Water, barley, hops, yeast, the brewer and time.  Stuart Ross pictured below at Magic Rock Brewing Co.  Other brewers are available.

More photos from my visit to Magic Rock Brewing Company here.

Getting Loaded at #EBBC12

“Just what is it that you want to do?

We wanna get loaded and have a good time

We wanna have a party, yeah!

That’s what we wanna do”.

– Primal Scream “Loaded” as written by Andrew Innes, Bobby Gillespie and Robert Young.

There has been some Twitter and blogging debate in the build up to the European Beer Bloggers Conference taking place in Leeds this weekend.  I’m not going to link any blog posts, paste screen shots of tweets or name drop, but everyone has their own opinion on the event.  Paraphrasing some of these opinions can summarise two main positions: 1). It’s just a glorified piss up and 2). each attendees personal motivation for getting involved.

I hadn’t given my participation and my free ticket-to-ride much thought, but with high calibre points-of-view whizzing past my nose and threatening to spoil my fun, I just wanted to get it down on paper (no not actual paper).  There is most definately a war-of-words rumbling on over the ethical aspects of beer blogging, and I shouldn’t have to / don’t need to respond, but for someone like me who tends to over think things, then I prefer to say something rather than keep it in my head.  It’s cathartic.

I paid £100 up front as a “civilian blogger”, fully refundable buy Molson Coors should I write and publish a blog post on EBBC12 and turn up to register.  As this is my first bloggers conference, I’m not sure how this is going to play out, but from the looks of the agenda there is fair indication that at the very least it will be a lot of fun, not everyone’s idea of fun, but I’m assuming those people will stay far away from the revelry.

Free beer is another hot topic of discussion at the moment, not just in the confines of EBBC12, but free beer and beer blogging in general.  The majority of the beer I will consume this weekend will be included in the cost, the cost I explained above, so it’s technically free.  There will also be “industry bloggers” and other attendees who will have paid a premium to be there.  The only way I can make sense of my ‘pass’ is thinking of it in terms of the conferences I have attended through my employment, and without exception those conferences were sponsored.  They are rarely sponsored by charities, but more commonly by profit making companies who are involved because it makes commercial sense.  It’s a concept that some people are comfortable with and one that others turn their back on.

I will of course sample the free beer over the next 3 days, and most likely come away with branded merchandise, but I would like to think that my motivation for attending is primarily to meet some people that I have chatted to on Twitter for the last year, learn something new or help me reflect on my writing and after that it is unapologetically about the beer, be it good or bad in my humble opinion.

Beer, Blogging and Le Baladin

As the 2012 European Beer Bloggers (EBBC) conference draws nearer, I’m readying myself for a few days of R&R.  The agenda is nearing completion and looks set to be an interesting couple of days.  Like most, if not all of the bloggers booked to attend the conference, I have thought about the writing opportunities that will come from meeting beer enthusiasts and bloggers, listening to the keynote speakers, drinking new beers and from a unique opportunity to take some time out of the everyday routine to focus on beer!

Friday 18th is a Night of International Beers featuring beers from smaller European breweries, giving bloggers a chance to try beer from those breweries who may not have national or international distribution, or may only brew limited runs. The inspiration for this post comes from a couple of beers I bought on a whim, bin end from the excellent Grove pub in Huddersfield.  I bought these beers way before I knew I would be going to EBBC, but I hope they help show the relationship between the conference and the bloggers themselves.  The beers are from a brewery I know nothing about and with the usual trawl of the internet, and with mixed results translating the brewery website, it occurred to me that I should tap knowledge from nearer the source.  Bloggers are generally easy-going people and that they publish their thoughts should tell you that a speculative tweet or email for help will usually result in a friendly response.  I contacted two guys who I’m aware of through Twitter and now read their blogs (when written in English!).

Teo Musso and his brewery Birrificio Le Baladin, Piozzo, Italy.

The first guest blogger to share his time and knowledge to help me put this post together is Milan based Alessio Leone, a bar manager, bike rider, drummer, beer lover and blogger at Hoppy-Hour.  I have traded a few tweets with Alessio @caskcrusade and have written about him before here.  Over to Alessio:

Teo Musso was born in 1964 in Carrù, a tiny village in the Langhe area, Piedmont.  His family has deep agricultural roots and his father is a winemaker.  He soon gets interested in beer and in 1986 he opens Le Baladin, a pub dedicated to music and beer in his hometown Piozzo, where he manages to collect 230 different beers from all over Europe. He then becomes interested in beer production by meeting and training with Jean Louis Dits from Brasserie à Vapeur and Christian Van Verbeerk who worked at Chimay.
The Baladin brewery born in 1996, together with a bunch of other Italian craft beer pioneers who gave life to the very first Italian beer movement (Birrificio Italiano, Centrale Della Birra, Birrificio Lambrate, Vecchio Birraio, Beba…). The brewery went from a 5hl brewhouse, to a 10hl one and then a 25hl one, to the actual brand new 35hl system that produces around 6000hl a year. 
Teo has always thought of beer as something to go with food at a diner’s table: he uses very few hops (he says hops often can’t interact very well with food), while prefers to experiment with malts, yeasts, agings and most of all spices. His focus in the last few years has been making Baladin a fully agricultural brewery that uses homegrown malts and hops.

Below a few of his most important labels:

Named after his son and one of his first beers, a saison made with eight different spices, gentian root and chicory.

One of the most attenuated beers ever (97% attenuation), made after a study on whisky yeasts.

A barley wine that uses oxydization techniques inspired by the wine worlds of Port and Solera.

Named after his wife, it’s a tribute to Egypt and its flavours, brewed with kamut grain, mhyr and an african resin.

I read you managed to get your hands on Super and Open. Super is one of the oldest and most representative Baladin beers, his personal take on a Belgian Abbey Ale.  Open was the first example of an open-source beer recipe (he published it online and invited homebrewers to brew an Open-clone): it was the first Baladin beer dedicated to pubs and not to restaurant’s tables, and it now gives name to two Open Baladin pubs in Piedmont and Rome, who only sell Italian craft beer on tap and in bottles.

As Alessio mentions above, I had bottles of Super and Open, so before reading the contribution of my second guest blogger, here are my thoughts on the beer.

Baladin Open is a 7.5% abv (plato 16,8) IPA, poured from a rather nice embossed 25cl bottle.  It opens with some enthusiasm and pours a light amber colour.  It has a healthy amount of fine sediment suspended in the beer, which didn’t settle out before I had finished the glass.  Light carbonation, with a thin white head forming, which left nice lacing on the glass.  It had aromas of honey and candy-floss, a Belgian beer quality with yeast esters you might typically find in a Saison.  Not the IPA character I was expecting at all, with no resinous citrus hop aromas bursting out of the glass.  First taste coated my mouth and had a hit of honey sweetness, followed quickly by warm alcohol.  The bitterness does come through at the end and has a dry champagne-like finish.  As I sipped the beer, it reminded me of the Buttercup honey and lemon throat lozenges, in a good way (as they say).  As it warmed a little, the warming alcohol quality took over.  A really smooth, tasty beer, bravo!

Baladin Super is an 8% abv (plato 18,5) Belgian Strong Ale, contained in an equally attractive 25cl bottle.  It poured a dark amber/red and as with the Open, it had a fine sediment suspended in the beer once poured into the glass.  No carbonation to speak of and a thin soapy head quickly dissipated.  The aroma was hiding in this beer and needed a good swirl in the glass, which released some interesting candy and sweet fruit aromas.  It was medium bodied as with the Open, but didn’t coat the mouth in the same way.  It had great syrup sweetness and again the fruit coming through, with apricot and subtle banana notes.  I could be way off here, but I thought it also had a slight sourness, but not really enough to get past the sweetness.  As you’d expect from a big Belgian beer, it had a warming alcohol finish.  I enjoyed this one for a good while, as the lasting flavours did not rush you into taking frequent sips and as I wanted to enjoy a beer that I won’t get to try again any time soon.

The second blogger I contacted while writing this piece was Will Glass who describes himself as a writer and entrepreneur.  Will is based in Italy’s Piedmont region where he draws most of his inspiration for his blog Italy Brews.  Will can be found on Twitter  @ItalyBrews.  When I asked Alessio and Will to contribute I gave them the same brief, that I was writing a piece on Le Baladin and could they write something about the brewery, the history and the beer.  When I received Will’s response I wasn’t quite sure how to use the content, but on reflection I am so pleased that I didn’t receive two similar responses.  Alessio set the scene, introduced Teo Musso and his brewery’s influence and relevance in the international beer scene.  Read on to see what Will drew from my request for information, but I think he encapsulates rather nicely what beer is all about, why we enjoy it so much and why we just have to write about it.

As an avid “beer traveler” I find my inner peace through chance meetings with the people behind the breweries and brew pubs we visit. Yes, we do typically plan in advance but the visits that happen organically are extremely special. During our recent visit to the small mountain village of Vernante we happened upon Birrificio Troll and Alberto Canavese, Troll’s Brew Master. The welcoming aroma and warmth of the wood burning fire created the perfect mountain cabin retreat for us to kick up our heals and ponder our recent 6 hour hike along the Via di Tèit trail through the Maritime Alps; straddling the border of France and Italy. Our trek was a hiker’s delight featuring high mountain passes scattered with ruins of small farming villages, streams from mountain snow run off, rolling green hills, snow capped peaks and bright colored spring flowers & Alpine herbs. We’d built up quite a thirst and the brew pub was the perfect ending to our voyage. Troll came into being in 2003 and currently produces 10 beer styles, each in 75cl bottles. The perfect seasonal beer for our visit was Febbre Alta (High Fever), Troll’s birra di primavera (beer of spring) which is brewed with local mountain flowers, herbs and spices. Italy’s Associazione Unionbirrai “Beer of the Year” in 2005, Febbre Alta features an amber color, floral nose and sweet herbal palate thanks to the locally cultivated mountain flowers and herbs used during the brewing process. And at 8.7% alcohol this Italian artisanal microbrew gave me quite a fever after a couple glasses…la dolce vita!

Not to cloud the post with the C-word, but ‘craft’ fits comfortably here. The concept, the 15 plus year project, the bottles, the design, the beer and a beer lovers ethos.  I’m so glad I bought the bottles of Baladin beer at the end of great night with friends, and that I stashed them in my cupboard, and that I managed to save them long enough for them to be drunk in the moment.  Thank you to Alessio and Will for taking part, and I look forward to meeting Alessio at the conference in a few weeks time.

My internet searching wasn’t in vain either and here are some interesting and varied pieces on Le Baladin from a few familiar faces to me, and if you join us in a few weeks time then you will mostly get to meet them. Mark Dredge Pencil & Spoon, Leigh Linley The Good Stuff, and a couple of rather nice video reports on location in Open Baladin, Rome by Zak Avery (Are You Tasting the Pith) and Rob Derbyshire (HopZine).  Also a piece written back in 2009 by The Beer Connoisseur Online,

A note from the organisers:

Have you given any thought to joining us in Leeds for this year’s conference?  We are expecting at least 100 bloggers to be in attendance (you can see who’s already signed up here) and if you haven’t already, register today! You can follow the event organisers on Twitter @beerbloggers and #EBBC12.

I’m Back in the Room

I’ve been quiet over the Christmas period.  I’ve tried to reduce my Twittering and haven’t found the time to blog.  I’m now back in the room and feeling excited about the year ahead.

2011 will be the year I remember for many things, none more important than the birth of my twin boys, afterall, my family time is unrivaled.  Having three young kids (in my case all under the age of 4) is a heady mix of joy and torment.  I wouldn’t change my situation and know just how lucky I am.  At times we all wish we had a little less responsibility and with it a chance to do the things we want to do, when we want to do them.  In most cases I think it’s financial responsibility that reigns us in and I’m no different.  Throw time responsibilities into the fray and someone in my position can kiss the sort of social life they once knew, good-bye.

As it happens, I have managed to make and maintain a few new friendships in 2011 brought about through beer geeking, I have also brewed a few beers, attended a few nights out and blogged a fair bit.  It’s tiring work trying to keep it all going, but my enjoyment isn’t affected and know that this part of my life keeps me sane.  It has also come to light that I tweet too much, especially my penchant for retweeting the stuff I think is interesting.  I plan to fail in reducing my Twitter output.

For the coming year I could see blogging as a challenge, trying to keep the ball-rolling, but to do this would be missing the point.  If I’m not enjoying something then there is little point in continuing.  Blogging should be fun and I intend to keep it that way.

I’m looking forward to more homebrewing, emptying my beer cupboard – during the few months when maternity pay severely restricts my purchasing power – more visits to the pub and attending the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Leeds.  Most importantly, I want to keep beer as a part of my life but not the focus.  Balance is everything.  Without balance, beer tastes terrible (in every sense) and family life is strained.

Here’s to family and beer in 2012.  Cheers!